40. Mark 10:1-12: Divorce
Another “test” for Jesus arises as he journeys to Judea and beyond the Jordan. A crowd gathers and Jesus teaches as per usual. What is this “test” or trap?
Jesus is at the place where John the Baptist launched God’s New Exodus movement. And John got in trouble with Herod for criticizing his marital unfaithfulness. Can the Pharisees get Jesus to say something about marriage and divorce that would undermine his messianic movement? Further, in Mark’s day, under the pressure of the impending war with Rome, families were divided and torn apart (Mk.13:12ff.). What would Jesus say to those in this crisis?
This is clearly not a straightforward doctrinal discussion!
Jesus answers their question with one of his own: “What did Moses command you?” (v.3). Here he unearth’s the real issue at stake: authority. Moses is the Pharisees’ authority. And they present his teaching accurately: he allowed divorce with the husband’s penning a “certificate of dismissal” (v.4). Or do they? Moses did not “command” divorce. It was a concession to the hardness of the people’s hearts, as Jesus goes on to point out (v.5). However, this was not the divine command that Moses reported in the Genesis narrative where we find God’s original and ultimate intention for marriage. There we find that a man and a woman in lifelong union, “one flesh,” is the Creator’s will. This is what Moses commanded God’s people. Jesus thus sides with God’s original intent for marriage rather than his concession about divorce because of the people’s lack of faith.
Here we have a microcosm of what Jesus’ New Exodus movement is all about. Like a prophet Jesus is cutting behind and beneath all the ways Israel found to disobey God’s creational intentions. He is not here serving up pastoral advice on marriage. He is declaring and siding with God’s intent and calling Israel to a new and better obedience. His private comment to the disciples in vv.11-12: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” tying divorce to adultery makes this clear.
The thrust of this story then is Jesus’ reaffirmation of God’s intention for marriage in and from the beginning. And this against the Pharisees’ too easy indulgence of the Mosaic concession of divorce. This is his point.
Obviously, though, this divine intent has not been fulfilled in Israel (or in God’s people since). Jesus’ declaration here condemns this unfaithfulness with unyielding prophetic clarity. “Unlike the modified and moderated versions in Matt. 5:31–32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:10–13, this saying represents Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus does not temper his command with situational conditions, but announces the absolute will of God” (Boring, Mark:8082).
But there is good news here too.
“But this means that, for Jesus’ comment to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hardheartedness. If he is now articulating a rigorous return to the standard of Genesis, to God’s original intention, he is either being hopelessly idealistic or he believes that the coming of the kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened. The fact that debates about divorce have concerned the church ever since indicates that this cure doesn’t work automatically or easily. Equally, though, the fact that millions of Christians have prayed for grace to remain faithful to their marriage vows, often under great stress, and have found the way not only to survive but to celebrate as ‘one flesh’, indicates that the implicit promise is true” (Wright, Mark, 167).
I noted above that other texts provide a more nuanced and pastoral look at marriage and the possibility of failure. Jesus does not void the concession for divorce, for we remain hard-hearted and divorces will happen. And sometimes they should. Sadly, marriage is a fertile ground for all manner of destructive forces. And no one is required to remain in such situations. Better admit failure, cut your losses, learn, and live to serve God more faithfully, single or remarried. Divorce is always a failure. It should be mourned, not celebrated. Repented of, not rejoiced over. But like other sins, divorce can be and has been forgiven by Jesus Christ and the new life he has won for us may well include another marriage. All this requires careful discernment along with trusted friends and mentors. Jesus strong reaffirmation of one man-one woman lifelong union as God’s intent in this polemical situation is its contribution to our understanding of marriage. Other passages need to be considered for a fuller and pastorally sensitive treatment. Just proclaiming God’s intention is not adequate. Necessary, but not adequate.